Understand the risk factors, symptoms, and diagnostic process for liver cancer.
The liver is a football-sized organ located in the abdomen that filters blood from other parts of the body. We can treat all forms of liver cancer. Our team includes doctors, nurses, dietitians, psychiatrists, and social workers, all of whom are here to meet the physical and emotional needs of liver cancer patients and their families.
Liver cancer is likely to cause cirrhosis, a condition in which healthy liver tissue is replaced by hard scar tissue. Over time, cirrhosis can cause liver failure if left untreated. Only about 10 percent of liver cancer patients will not develop cirrhosis.
Risk factors for liver cancer
Liver cancer affects both men and women, but men are more likely to have it. All races/ethnicities are affected. Non-Caucasian people are more commonly diagnosed at an advanced stage of the disease.
The most common risk factors include:
- Heavy alcohol use (more than two drinks per day for men or one drink per day for women) over a long period of time
- Hepatitis B
- Hepatitis C
While hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and alcohol related liver disease are the most common risk factors, fatty liver disease due to obesity is a growing cause of liver cancer.
Some people falsely believe liver cancer always is caused by excessive alcohol use. This is untrue -- a variety of factors can cause liver cancer. But heavy alcohol use is a risk factor for liver cancer. Studies have shown that heavy alcohol consumption over time can increase the risk of liver cancer significantly.
Alcohol and liver cancer
Drinking alcohol does not directly cause liver cancer. However, studies have shown that heavy alcohol consumption over time can increase the risk of liver cancer significantly. While the exact link between drinking and cancer is not known, some evidence suggests that the damage done to the liver by alcohol (such as cirrhosis) can lead to higher risk of cancer. This is because the body’s attempts to repair the liver may result in a mutation in the DNA that can lead to cancer. For this reason, even former heavy drinkers who do not drink currently can develop liver cancer.
In order to lessen the risk of cancer, the American Cancer Society recommends limiting alcohol intake to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. The amount is different because women and men process alcohol differently, so the effects on the body are different. One standard alcoholic drink is equal to:
- 12 ounces of regular beer
- 5 ounces of wine
- One and a half ounces (or one shot) of 80 proof liquor
All standard drinks contain the same amount of alcohol, so any type -- including mixed drinks -- poses equal risk of liver damage.
It’s important to discuss your alcohol intake with your doctor. Those who have been diagnosed with liver cancer especially should ask what alcohol, if any, is appropriate for them. Depending on your situation, your doctor can recommend consumption guidelines based on your other health factors and potential risks.
Liver cancer symptoms
Liver cancer is typically asymptomatic (meaning no symptoms are present) until patients develop advanced stages of the disease. However, once the cancer has grown large enough, it can cause a number of health conditions, including:
- Abdominal pain
- Ascites, or abdominal swelling due to accumulation of fluid in the abdominal cavity
- Jaundice, or yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes
- Weight loss
If you experience any of these symptoms, you should see a doctor. People with a history of chronic liver disease or cirrhosis should be routinely checked for liver cancer.
Types of liver cancer
Our doctors treat all forms of liver cancer. The four main types of liver cancer are:
- Angiosarcoma: a rare type of cancer that starts in the blood vessels of the liver.
- Cholangiocarcinoma (also known as a Klatskin tumor): this tumor begins in the bile ducts and accounts for approximately 13 percent of liver cancers.
- Hepatoblastoma: another rare type of liver cancer that typically affects children.
- Hepatocellular carcinoma: this tumor begins in the main type of liver cells, known as the hepatocytes, and accounts for approximately 84 percent of liver cancers.
Liver cancer diagnosis
We diagnose liver cancer with a variety of medical tests, including:
- Biopsy: we remove a tiny piece of liver tissue with a needle through the skin. A doctor will evaluate the tissue for evidence of cancer.
- Blood tests: we’ll check for anemia and how well your liver functions.
- Computed tomography (CT) scan: uses specialized X-rays to create detailed, cross-sectional views of internal organs.
- Laparoscopy: a doctor places a thin tube inside the body through a small incision in the front of the stomach to see the liver and other organs. We were the first health system in Michigan to use this procedure.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): a computer analysis that creates detailed images of the organs.
- Ultrasound: we use sound waves to produce images of internal organs on a screen.
Liver cancer treatment
There are many treatments for liver cancer, and if diagnosed early, treatment is often successful.
Beyond treatment, we provide a range of education and support options to all our cancer patients.